In Their Curious Intelligence

Other Minds
Peter Godfrey-Smith, William Collins, 2017

It all begins with a look. Other Minds opens with a disarmingly intimate scene of a scuba-diver meeting a group of cephalopods on the ocean floor. In this moment of mutual engagement, ‘their eyes were large’ he writes, ‘and not too dissimilar to human eyes.’ As their roaming tentacles investigate their surroundings, ‘they watch you closely.’ The reader witnesses man’s role in this scenario transform from the observer to that of the observed. Peter Godfrey-Smith’s enchanting book places these curious and captivating, often very physical interactions between man and creature at its foundation. It is these moments that inspire him, driving his investigation into whether we can reconstruct subjective experience in minds and bodies totally alien to our own. Alongside engaging and accessible explanations of evolutionary biology and psychological studies, Other Minds provides challenging reflections on the philosophical implications of sentience and the very notion of subjective experience itself.

Cephalopods, whose family includes the octopus, cuttlefish and squid, are rather other-worldly creatures indeed. Unfettered by the constraints of hard tissue or bones, they can morph themselves into a baffling array of shapes, colours and forms. The story begins in the ocean. ‘The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible.’ The first forms of life were single-celled organisms, which sprang into existence perhaps two billion years ago on the ocean floor. Much later, around 600 million years ago, the cephalopods’ evolutionary road forked off from man. Yet they also, through wholly separate evolutionary reasons to do with protection and survival, developed large and complex nervous systems. The sentience that they must have as a result is precisely what is so nebulous, continuing to elude full scientific explanation.

The nervous system of the octopus, only part of which is localised in the brain, is a highly complex framework. Relative to subordinate-level molluscs, the octopus exhibits a much greater number of cells within the nervous system – 500 million or so neurons. Interestingly, over two-thirds of these are found in their arms, a neurological organisation quite different to that of humans. So while the majority of human nervous capacities reside in the central core, the octopus arm’s nervous system is located outside the brain’s cartilaginous capsule, and may therefore be deemed an autonomous system. The central and peripheral nervous systems are connected by relatively few intermediate neurons, which implies that while the brain may delegate executive orders, the arms are responsible for the delivery of such information, as well as the execution of complex reflex actions which require no input from the brain at all. Godfrey-Smith calls this latter form of signalling, through which the arms having a ‘mind of their own’, embodied cognition. Humans can perform this sort of action to some extent: in reflex actions, or ‘muscle memory’. A significant part of cephalopod consciousness, it seems, derives from their corporeal experiences. All too often we conceptualise the relative ‘intelligence’ of other creatures as simpler, scaled-down versions of ourselves. These creatures, however, bring us into contact with highly complex and developed forms of consciousness that we cannot simply evaluate by mapping equivalences from our own experiences. Their minds, or rather their subjective experiences, claims Godfrey-Smith, are the ‘most other of all’.

From their dynamism of expression and behaviour, Godfrey-Smith demonstrates the potential of cephalopods for complex sentient experiences. The cephalopod family, and the giant squid in particular, are capable of producing an almost immeasurable diversity of signals – Godfrey-Smith sketches out vividly a phenomenon he calls ‘chatter’, which describes the ever-transforming colours and shapes displayed by their skin and reflective layers. These displays, after much observation, seem to be somewhat subjective to each creature – some seem to ‘prefer’ certain palettes, and sometimes certain shades can signal emotional states, such as aggression or subservience. More often these displays appear to not hold any meaning at all, being rather a reflection of the ‘electrochemical tumult inside them’, an ‘inadvertent expression of the animals’ inner processes.’ In this respect, cephalopods provide a fascinating comparison with the baboons in Cheney and Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics. Baboons have been shown to produce a very limited range of communicative sounds, perhaps only up to four discrete signals; but because of their complex social hierarchies and connected lives, the interpretive labour engaged by members of a group, particularly in a context where a hierarchical shift may be occurring, is extensive. By contrast, cuttlefish and other cephalopods are ‘brimming with output. Publish or perish… the production side is vastly, almost indefinitely complex.’ They seem to create gestures of huge complexity: the difference is, it doesn’t seem to be for anyone’s benefit. No-one (or rather, none of the other cephalopods) appears to be listening.

Despite the tour de force of clarity in his scientific explanations, it is the philosophical implications of “otherness” that are most thought-provoking. Interactions – as in the opening story of the diver – are the crux to which he consistently returns. Self-reflective interactions between man and creature have a long history in variegated forms, in literature, art and film. They are foregrounded in recent explorations such as The Shape of Water, or David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2. In the former, it is thanks to water, and the creature that inhabits it, that the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) finds herself truly understood. It is almost a reversal of Godfrey-Smith’s man and creature: her solitude is reminiscent of the octopuses’ unheard chatter.

Godfrey-Smith transforms these creatures into protagonists with touching depth of character. There is Charles the Octopus, who completely subverts the experiment in which his other two octopod colleagues are keen to cooperate. While they quickly learn to pull a lever, which activates a light and releases a sardine treat into the tank, Charles very purposefully squirts the light until it breaks, and proceeds to terrorise a certain lab technician (towards whom he has an arbitrary disliking) by squirting him from across the room at every given opportunity. Then there is the aptly named Matisse, the cuttlefish with a particular penchant for ‘chromatic explosions’ ranging from blazes of canary yellow to sunset hues of orange and red. The dynamic Kandinsky (another suitable name) often has his arms going everywhere, ‘like a collection of ceremonial lances’. In contrast, there is the stately giant cuttlefish Brancusi, who, favouring shape to colour ‘would sometimes fix a few of his arms into an unusual pattern and then hold the shape completely still.’ There are unnamed characters that nevertheless leave their impression, such as one particularly standoffish creature he recalls:

Once I was being ignored so perfectly that I planted myself directly in the animal’s path… What followed felt like an existentialist game of ‘chicken’. He came closer and closer, refusing to acknowledge my presence, until he was a foot or so away. Then he looked up at me, with an expression that I cannot describe at all except to say that he seemed deeply unimpressed.

This discussion of their eyes is striking: how they look at you, or consciously avoid looking at you, and know when you’re looking at them. Why do they interact with us, or with each other, when they do? And why do they prefer, apparently, ‘a maintenance of the non-contact’?

This paradox of such unexpectedly unsocial creatures having such creative potential for expression is tantalising. Fascination with such a paradox led Godfrey-Smith to spend almost a decade diving, observing and researching octopus behaviour in Octopolis. Octopolis grew out of a bed of thousands of scallop shells, 50 feet below the surface off the East Coast of Australia. The octopuses that make dens, live and interact there seem to have developed an idiosyncratically sociable form of co-existence. Unorthodox environments such as this impacting ‘normative’ cephalopod social behaviour was also considered in Mohiyan and Rodaniche’s controversial 1980s study about the Caribbean Reef Squid. Mohiyan and Rodaniche maintained that these creatures demonstrate forms of ‘language’ – they described sequences of expression with names such as ‘Golden eyebrows’, ‘Dark arms’, ‘Flecked yellow’, and ‘Upward curl’.

The implication seemed to be that in certain, better-protected contexts, these creatures are capable of adapting their expressions into interactions with social meaning. By proposing such possibilities however, Godfrey-Smith leaves us with many more questions than answers: whether, for example, the idiosyncrasies of the Caribbean reef squid and the bizarrely long gestation period of the females coupled with their longer lifespans, or the apparent development of their rather more interactive, sociable lives, is something that might be found elsewhere. The apparent arbitrariness of the Octopolis inhabitants’ interactions with each other, and with human divers, is equally frustrating. But perhaps what is left unresolved or unanswered is what makes the stories of these uncontainable, morphing creatures so magical in the first place. Their curious intelligence, painted so vividly by Godfrey-Smith, remains just out of reach.

What is perhaps most difficult to fathom, is that these lives, these complex and incalculable sentient experiences, are tragically short-lived. Most cephalopods hardly make it past the age of two – and when they hit this sell-by-date, they begin simply to fall apart. Perhaps the best-known cephalopod of recent times is Paul the “oracle” octopus, who during the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, correctly “predicted” all the results by picking the flag of the country that would win each match. His Wikipedia page remarks rather laconically that ‘Paul was last checked by staff on the 25th October 2010, and was in good health, but the following morning he was found dead.’ Godfrey-Smith shocks us with their unfulfilled potential. ‘A dull-looking fish lives for centuries’ he laments with disbelief, ‘while cuttlefish, in their splendour, and the octopuses, in their curious intelligence, are dead before they are two.’ One such ignoble death he describes is particularly moving: ‘the cuttlefish’s death was a transition from swimming deep in her quiet world, through a slow spiralling ascent, to drifting on the noisy surface of ours.’ It brings us back, as indeed the whole book does, to us – to our relationship with the aquatic environment that is their home.

Ultimately, the story of the sea, and of the cephalopods’ subjective experience, is intimately related to our own. The fork of evolution that led to us, via multi-celled organisms that could move onto land, was only made possible by organisms subsuming seawater into their structures. ‘When animals did crawl onto dry land, they took the sea with them. All the basic activities of life occur in water-filled cells surrounded by membranes, tiny containers whose insides are remnants of the sea.’ So the questions are reversed back onto us – onto our own intelligence, and how we might interact with our world. Other Minds explores what it means to be sentient; but through the prism of these tangible human-cephalopod interactions, it also touches on what it means to be human. This too we find echoed in The Shape of Water. Elisa’s beloved creature is tortured for its very nature, for not being human. In an appeal to save it she frantically signs – ‘if we do nothing, neither are we.’

Early on, Godfrey-Smith maintains that cephalopods are ‘the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien’. As his narrative continues, this initial belief is revised and transformed. Perhaps these bizarre, curiously intelligent, tentacled, morphing creatures that have captured the artistic and literary imagination of humankind for centuries are not so other after all. We both owe our existence, as well as our subjective experiences, to the same oceans. Godfrey-Smith’s story begins in those oceans, and he reluctantly draws his narrative to a close there too. His final, poignant appeal is to the reader, urging us not to put an end to life in these waters. It is the very root of the story of life to which we – whether octopus, cuttlefish, or human – owe our very existence.